Cigars, once banned, fire up troop morale in Afghanistan
By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 10, 2016
KABUL, Afghanistan — For some here it started as a family tradition, for others it was a college rite of passage and for a few, it’s something they do only while deployed.
Rich Giero, 58, a retired Army master sergeant, said he started smoking cigars when he was 14 because an older cousin did it and he thought it was cool.
“Plus, Clint Eastwood smoked cigars, and that was definitely cool,” said Giero, the intelligence section operations chief at the NATO-led Resolute Support mission’s headquarters.
Whatever their reasons for starting, military, civilian and contractor members of the Tali-banned Cigar Aficionado Club here say it’s more than a nicotine fix. It’s a bond of friendship, an escape from the drudgery of deployed life and a taste of home.
The group takes its name from the fact that the Islamist Taliban had once forbidden smoking, among a list of social ills including television and the internet. But the Kabul club revels in the vice, which builds community and remains popular among the troops despite efforts by military brass to snuff it out.
Army Chief Warrant Officer Carl Tenbrink said he started soon after arriving in Kabul earlier this year, when he got cigars in a care package from his father.
“He’s an old-school Army guy,” he said. “He was in Korea years ago. That was the thing then, so he sent me [some].”
Tenbrink was urged to join the club by Capt. Cory Weiss, an Army colleague who said he first lit up a stick while a cadet at the Citadel. First-year “knobs” buy stogies for the upperclassmen in their companies and smoke with them as part of the South Carolina military college’s Thanksgiving tradition.
It’s not clear how or when cigars became such a part of military life, but Storm Boen of Operation: Cigars for Warriors, a Florida nonprofit that sends care packages of free premium smokes to deployed U.S. servicemembers, said the charity’s research found that they were requested more than any other item.
Since May 2012, the group of 389 volunteers, which had relied on donated cigars from manufacturers before the practice was outlawed this year, has sent more than 700,000 free cigars to deployed troops — all by request.
“That right there shows you we’re fulfilling a need,” he said. “We’re not fulfilling a hobby.”
Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida and Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, a Marine Corps reservist who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, are seeking to exempt donations to troops from new Food and Drug Administration regulations that bar tobacco companies from giving away their products — part of the latest U.S. efforts to curb the vice. In a letter to the FDA calling a prohibition affecting the troops “unacceptable,” Hunter said the donations boost morale and help relieve stress.
In the meantime, tobacco companies have suspended their contributions to Cigars for Warriors, Boen said, hampering the charity’s ability to continue sending packages downrange.
Cash and Cohibas from private donors at more than 400 locations keep them going for now. Near-daily posts on a Facebook group for the charity include photos of troops enjoying their contents, often in Spartan-looking locales.
Soldiers in Kabul and at Qayara Airfield West in Iraq say they look forward to getting tobacco products, whether from family or from strangers expressing their support.
What may make cigars especially coveted, Boen said, is that unlike a cup of their favorite java from home — the second-most requested item in his research — consumed as a part of a daily routine, a stogie is often enjoyed socially and has the effect of briefly “stopping time.”
A retired Army first sergeant, Boen said he started Cigars for Warriors because smoking the rolls of tobacco had been an important part of how he and his troops came together to decompress, celebrate a victory or have frank discussions.
Since he left the Army in 2014, the camaraderie he’s found with cigar smokers has been the closest thing “to the brotherhood I miss,” he said. “And I mean brotherhood in a fairly generic sense, because there are so many female smokers.”
Army Maj. Cassie Daily is president of the cigar club in Kabul. She started smoking stogies during a 2003 deployment to Camp Cuervo, Iraq, where she began learning about cigars the way some people study fine wine.
Since then, she’s deployed to two bases without cigar clubs — Forward Operating Base Rushmore in Afghanistan and Camp Anaconda in Iraq — so she started them herself. Still, she said, smoking remains “only a deployment crave.”
Daily says she’s “extremely blessed” in Kabul with an established club boasting a well-stocked clubhouse and 350 members currently in country, many of them women.
The club traces its existence back to 2009, Daily said. Founder Michael “Moe” O’Donovan, a contractor, modeled it on a cigar group in Baghdad. He oversaw its growth from an eight-member chapter to more than 820 members in 22 chapters in Afghanistan and stateside, including a Navy aircraft carrier air wing.
Even before that, stogies played a role in base morale. A panel of plywood signed by musician Kid Rock at Christmastime in 2007 now hangs in the club’s latest designated smoking area. A black-and-white photo shows Rock and a soldier puffing cigars.
“This is our getaway place,” said Col. Thomas Mitalski, a Marine Corps Osprey pilot who leads the counter-improvised explosive device mission here. “We can blow off some steam. That’s really why I’m attracted to, or drawn to the cigar club.”
Mitalski was in the clubhouse with about a dozen members of various ranks one recent Thursday night, when a soldier was streaming cable TV from home on one of the club’s new flat panel televisions. Many servicemembers have internet in their rooms here, but Daily said the club’s got the fastest connection on post.
Thursdays and Saturdays, when members can sleep in the next day, are popular nights, Daily said, along with anytime sports games are aired. Sometimes members sleep on one of the clubhouse sofas waiting for a 5 a.m. game; other times, the screens are off and people talk about life here or back home, making connections across services and nationalities.
Army Capt. Rachel Campion said she remembered her father telling of smoking cigars in his Army hooch outside Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War. She started smoking, too, when her boss, an Austrian serving in the NATO-led training mission, invited her to the cigar club soon after she arrived in Kabul.
“I’m pretty social, so I thought it would be a good way to meet new people ... get out of the office,” Campion said. “It’s been more than that — I’ve gotten to talk to people I probably normally wouldn’t.”
Members say the club welcomes all ranks, and it’s often a way for junior servicemembers to mingle informally with senior officers, embassy staff and other coalition forces. The connections made in the smoke-filled club can also be helpful during the workday, Daily said.
Mitalski said he probably smokes more cigars on deployment than at home because it’s one of few social outlets. “At home, you have a lot of other options.”
On alternating Fridays, club chapters in Kabul at Resolute Support headquarters and the adjoining U.S. Embassy compound host meetings with free cigars to welcome new members and send off those rotating home. There’s usually a joke session and raffle drawings for which hundreds of $1 tickets are sold.
Proceeds from membership dues — lifetime membership is $25 — the sale of cigars, club merchandise and raffle tickets are donated to Afghan charitable causes, such as a local orphanage. More than $25,000 has been raised since 2009.
There are still club chapters elsewhere in Afghanistan, including at the New Kabul Compound, Bagram Air Field and Camp Morehead, which this week will confer honorary membership on the late Army Sgt. Douglas J. Riney. Proceeds will go to the family of the soldier, 26, killed near the base in October.
As servicemembers relaxed in the Kabul clubhouse, John Mulkeen, a Defense Department civilian who stocks the club with premium products, drew a selection from an airtight plastic container of $25 cigars. A wall locker and two long wooden boxes are filled with Gurkha, Montecristo, Macanudo, Cohiba and other brands.
“I’ve got a couple Rocky Patels in there,” Mulkeen said, sorting through the cellophane-wrapped brown tobacco rolls. He was preparing a care package on the club’s behalf.
A Tali-banned member and field-grade officer recently visited a handful servicemembers forward-deployed to a small post near Gardez and asked what they needed, Daily said. Among their requests: cigars.